A human rights group that attracted millions of views on YouTube to testimonies from people who say their families have disappeared in China’s Xinjiang region is moving its videos to little-known service Odysee after some were taken down by the Google-owned streaming giant, two sources say.
The group, credited by international organisations like Human Rights Watch for drawing attention to human rights violations in Xinjiang, has come under fire from Kazakh authorities since its founding in 2017.
Serikzhan Bilash, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh activist who co-founded the channel and has been arrested multiple times for his activism, said government advisors told him five years ago to stop using the word “genocide” to describe the situation in Xinjiang – an order he assumed came from pressure from China’s government on Kazakhstan.
“They’re just facts,” Mr Bilash said to Reuters in a phone interview, referring to the content of Atajurt’s videos.
“The people giving the testimonies are talking about their loved ones.”
Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights’ channel has published nearly 11,000 videos on YouTube totalling more than 120 million views since 2017, thousands of which feature people speaking to camera about relatives they say have disappeared without a trace in China’s Xinjiang region, where UN experts and rights groups estimate a million people have been detained in recent years.
On 15 June, the channel was blocked for violating YouTube’s guidelines, according to a screenshot seen by Reuters, after twelve of its videos had been reported for breaching its “cyberbullying and harassment” policy.
The channel’s administrators had appealed the blocking of all twelve videos between April and June, with some reinstated – but YouTube did not provide an explanation as to why others were kept out of public view, the administrators told Reuters.
Following inquiries from Reuters as to why the channel was removed, YouTube restored it, explaining that it had received multiple so-called “strikes” for videos which contained people holding up ID cards to prove they were related to the missing, violating a YouTube policy which prohibits personally identifiable information from appearing in its content.
They reinstated the channel on 18 June but asked Atajurt to blur the IDs.
Atajurt is hesitant to comply, the channel’s administrator said, concerned that doing so would jeopardise the trustworthiness of the videos.
Fearing further blocking by YouTube, they decided to back up content to Odysee, a website built on a blockchain protocol called LBRY, designed to give creators more control.
About 975 videos have been moved so far.
Even as administrators were moving content, they received another series of automated messages from YouTube stating that the videos in question had been removed from public view, this time because of concerns that they may promote violent criminal organisations.
“There is another excuse every day. I never trusted YouTube,” Mr Bilash, one of Atajurt’s founders, said.
“But we’re not afraid anymore, because we are backing ourselves up with LBRY. The most important thing is our material’s safety.”
Mr Bilash, who fled to Istanbul last year after suffering repeated threats and intimidation from Kazakh authorities when he refused to stop working with Atajurt, said his equipment including hard disks and mobile phones had been confiscated multiple times in Kazakhstan – making YouTube the only place where their entire video collection was stored.
YouTube said the messages relating to promoting violent criminal organisations were automated and not related to the creator’s content but the videos were being kept private to allow administrators to make edits.
UN experts and rights groups estimate more than a million people, mainly Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, have been detained in a vast system of camps in Xinjiang.
Many former inmates have said they were subject to ideological training and abuse in the camps.
Chinese authorities deny all accusations of abuse.